Ohio State went into their national championship game against Alabama last month undermanned up front without nose tackle Tommy Togiai and defensive end Tyreke Smith, but it was the situation in the back end that was much more of a concern for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State was essentially comfortable with just four of their defensive backs by the time Alabama rolled around. Cornerbacks Shaun Wade and Sevyn Banks were stalwarts, while safeties Josh Proctor and Marcus Williamson rounded out the quartet.
Marcus Hooker, a starter at one time, was relegated to special teams in the postseason. Freshman safety Lathan Ransom played quite a bit against Clemson, but saw his snaps against Alabama drop below 10.
Where the Ohio State defensive coaches did have confidence, however, was at linebacker. Four linebackers played over 50 snaps for the Buckeyes. In fact, OSU’s fourth linebacker — Justin Hilliard — played more snaps on defense against Alabama than Marcus Williamson.
While the four senior linebackers were reliable, against Alabama’s passing game, it was a matchup that did not end up in Ohio State’s favor. But it was almost an impossible situation for the Buckeye coaches in terms of trust and game planning.
“Part of that season was, if you have a 12-game regular season, you’re probably playing more guys and you feel more confident playing more guys. And I don’t think we felt that way going into the homestretch,” head coach Ryan Day admitted recently. “And so you’re right, we didn’t have as much depth out there.”
The Buckeyes lose one defender from the secondary in Shaun Wade. Everybody else returns, but returning isn’t nearly enough. This needs to be a better secondary than it was a year ago. Given the full offseason, that should happen. Day cited Ransom as a guy with “a lot of great football ahead of him.” It’s more than just Ransom, of course. It’s also about simply having more options and more time to get them ready.
“Yeah, I feel better [about the secondary] going into the season than I did last season,” Day said. “I think that we want to have 22 on the team and I believe it’s 19 on scholarship. And we’ve done a really good job of getting some really good players in here. Now they’re going to be young and they’re not all in here now. There’s several of those guys who signed who aren’t going to be here until the summer, but we’re going to try to do everything we can to get them rolling on Zoom and just make sure we monitor their physical workouts to make sure that when they get in here they’re ready to roll.”
If the team’s goal is 19 defensive backs on scholarship, they fell woefully short a season ago with just 14. That number is a product of several things, including the dismissals of Amir Riep and Jahsen Wint, the transfers of Isaiah Pryor, Brendon White, Wayne Davis, and Rodjay Burns, the early departure to the NFL of Jeff Okudah, and the recruiting failures of previous defensive back coaches. Against Alabama, all of the Ohio State secondary’s bills came due and they had to borrow from the linebackers.
This year, the Buckeyes are right at that 19 number, assuming redshirt freshman Kourt Williams is still a safety and incoming freshman Jaylen Johnson starts out at safety. Ohio State signed six defensive backs in the 2021 class to bolster the five signed in 2020. The Buckeyes have tried to build the numbers back up, but it takes time. It also takes development and maturation.
Even though the 2020 freshmen didn’t get a ton of snaps in games, Day does believe they got better and developed. They just didn’t have enough of an opportunity to get to the point where they could contribute as much as needed because of the pandemic.
“But those younger guys did get better as the season went on, they just didn’t get an opportunity to get on the field,” Day said. “Well, now that’s all gonna change. And now it’s a whole new set of guys. The freshmen are no longer freshmen, now they’re sophomores. And sophomores are now upperclassmen, and the juniors and seniors, this is it for them. This is their last run, so everyone’s spot on the team and pecking order changes.”
The Buckeyes will have upwards of six cornerbacks on the 2021 roster with freshman eligibility. Three of them were on the team last year and three will be brand new. Together, they need to provide depth and show potential. They need to push for starting jobs. The same can be said for the safeties, which will have upwards of five first- or second-year players vying for spots.
The numbers are finally back to where they need to be. Now it’s time to make everybody a whole lot older a whole lot quicker.
“And so now these young guys are gonna have to step up and play,” Day said. “And this is important because we missed out on a lot of snaps this year, and we’ve talked about this for a while. And so a lot of these guys are still kind of figuring out where they’re at and all this. So this is a big, big spring and a big offseason. Probably one of the biggest off seasons we’ve had in a while here for those younger guys.”
Last year may be in the rear-view mirror, but it still somehow looms on the horizon. And it will continue to do so until it is no longer an impediment to development.
This winter and spring will be key in moving the Buckeyes past an impossible year and getting them back on track towards being the best in America once again.